Now is a time unlike any other — a time when lovesick bulls have nothing else on their mind other than passing on their genetic code. Heed the advice of renowned elk-killer, Zach Bowhay, and you’ll come out of the mountains heavier than you went in.
by Zach Bowhay
Get Real With Late September Bulls
In my last article, I wrote about how to find success hunting elk in the first part of September. I love that part of the season. However, this time, I’d like to dive into the magic part of the month. This is when the rut kicks in, bulls are bugling, and most bowhunters use their annual leave to head to the woods for their big elk vacation.
This part of the season has many advantages over the pre-rut. It also brings more obstacles. Those obstacles are more hunting pressure, increasingly call shy elk, and bulls that have snagged a harem of cows. More animals mean more eyes, ears, and noses. This part of the season is when it’s time to put on the gas. Get aggressive, and give it all you have to finish the season out strong.
Be More Aggressive With Elk
Earlier in the month, being more passive in your hunting, calling, and overall approach to the hunt is typically beneficial. Elk need more time to prepare for the full-on rut and are better hunted with more patience and care.
A switch will flip in the elk woods in mid to late September, and being ready to pounce is essential.
The switch I am referring to will usually be evident because bugling generally increases exponentially. This is especially true in the early and late hours of the day. Some say this happens due to the moon phase, estrus sent in the air, or the elk knowing it is time to rut.
I don’t care why it happens; I know I want to be there when it does.
Regarding being aggressive, I move when I hear a bull or bull’s bugling. By move, I mean cut as much ground between you and the bull as quickly as possible. If you can hear or see elk without calling, keep moving. If you have been waiting to hear elk for a while and are unsure of their location, periodically let out a location bugle to gauge where they are, and when they bugle again, keep moving.
When you get close to elk during this part of the rut, I like more aggressive calling. I use a mix of cow calls and bugles. Like earlier in the season, I start with some light mews on a diaphragm and then work into a cadence on an estrus-type call like the Voo Doo External Elk Call by Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls. Another great option if you struggle with diaphragm calls, is the EZ Suk’r. This call is used by inhaling, and it makes the full range of cow, calf, and estrus sounds. This time of the season, have a quality bugle tube like the Archangel, Acrylic elk by Slayer. This type of bugle is big and means business. It is not only perfect for casting far-off locating bugles but also works excellent when challenging a bull in close when you need to make the guttural, deep sounds that bulls make.
Remember, mastering your calling is critical. Elk have a Ph.D. in knowing the difference between elk and humans.
When calling bulls this time of year, mimicking their energy is best. If they are sounding off, bugle back at them and over the top of them. If they are digging the bugle, then bugle. Estrus calls and light mews tend to work as well, and if these are getting them going, stick with more of that. Up the energy. Keep the bulls bugling, and keep advancing on them until they finally have had enough and come to investigate.
Having a good hunting partner helps a lot. Elk like to hang up just outside of bow range and prefer to avoid coming into your setup. Having a hunting partner set up and calling 50-100 yards behind you can drastically increase your odds of having a bull in close.
Make sure you agree on a plan beforehand to ensure there isn’t any animosity. Switching off every setup or even daily is an excellent way to go. I would rather have a good hunting buddy with me if we are both committed to the group getting an elk. I prefer to be solo if the partner is selfish and doesn’t give their all when in the caller seat.
As I noted earlier, this is the time of the season when hunting pressure will be at its peak. This is especially true in over-the-counter units or easy-draw units on public land. Hunters have waited all year, just like you. They will be on-site and eager to hunt. Because of this, patience cannot be practiced as readily as during the early season. If bulls are vocal or visible, hunters will be in pursuit. Years ago, before bowhunting elk became as popular as today, a hunter could play it smart if conditions weren’t perfect and hunt the elk later that evening or the next day. Nowadays, when given a chance, one must take it, even if conditions aren’t perfect.
This doesn’t mean barreling in after every bull if the wind swells in every direction. It does, however, mean if there is a chance to pounce, take it, even if that means going a long way around to put yourself in position.
Be Prepared for Anything
Although bad weather can come anytime in the mountains, it seems much more likely the second half of September and increasingly so the closer October gets. This means having the right gear to keep you out there is critical. Rain and snow can be frustrating and cold. However, hunting in this weather can be very productive. I have also observed over the years that even though bowhunters claim to be tough, the woods are often pretty vacant of hunters on rainy days.
I have some great days of elk hunting when the rain falls, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to hunt in these conditions. Having a good set of rain gear like the Chugach TR from KUIU makes hunting in these conditions much easier to tackle. The jacket and pant are lightweight enough to put in your pack but substantial enough to handle any situation.
Another essential in my pack is a quality puffy jacket like the Kryptek Ares Jacket. Like the rain gear, having a good down coat in your pack won’t weigh you down but can warm you up. This jacket will keep you out there hunting when the mercury dips. The ability to stay in the woods, regardless of weather conditions, may increase your odds more than any hunting tactic ever will.
With all the extra gear needed to hunt elk, it’s essential to have a pack with plenty of room for all of your equipment . Plus the bag needs to be capable or toting large loads of elk meat. Some hunters use a lightweight pack for hauling meat. Most of these hunters experience pack failure, sore shoulders, and an aching back. I don’t hunt without a pack capable of carrying a load of meat between the frame and the bag.
If I walk back to the truck after a kill, I want at least a quarter of that elk on my back. A pack like the IA2K from Initial Ascent fits this bill perfectly. This 2000 cubic inch bag packs down nicely when you don’t have tons of gear and has plenty of room for all the essentials of the late season.
Then, when you kill a bull, you can strap quarters or boned-out meat in with the load sling between the frame and bag. The pack has a great frame, suspension system, and shoulder straps capable of handling the most oversized loads.
I know this applies to any time, but it’s worth mentioning that when elk hunting, you must always be prepared to break down an elk after a harvest. There are a few essential items you must always have in your pack. One of the first is a quality set of game bags.
Plenty of companies are making these, like VIAM, Argali, Caribou Gear, KUIU, and Black Ovis,to name a few. Make sure to have a set large enough for each of the four quarters and another big enough for all the extra meat.
Also, make sure you have a good knife capable of the job. I prefer a quality fixed-blade knife like the Saddle Mountain Skinner from Benchmade. This knife stays buried in my pack and only comes out when it’s time to break down a kill. This way, it’s sure to be razor-sharp.
Speaking of sharpness, I always carry a Worksharp Guided Field Sharpener. I am not the world’s best knife sharpener. However, the device is so user-friendly even a dummy like me can’t mess it up. When breaking down a bull, I stop and give my knife a quick touch-up. This makes the whole task much more manageable.
Lastly, make sure to have some paracord and a small field saw if you intend on cutting off antlers or making a meat pole. I euro mount all my elk and hang quarters from limbs or down logs, so I ditched the saw years ago.
The latter part of September is magic! The bulls are ready to play, and encounters can be adrenaline-charged. The elk can be vocal, but it is frustrating when they hang up and won’t advance to your calls. Be persistent and aggressive, hunt hard but intelligent, and hopefully, you will get an elk in bow range this hunting season.